TEXTS: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51
And the Lord called to Samuel, “Samuel, Samuel” and (after many miscues) the young boy Samuel responded, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And the next day Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” All of the gospel writers, in one way or another, begin the story of Jesus’ ministry on earth with a gathering (calling) of his disciples. This point, of course, is critical to the gospels, since the ministry of Jesus lasted only about three years, but the ministry of the disciples, those who followed Jesus, who were taught by him, who witnessed his miraculous works, even to his death and resurrection, the ministry of the disciples lasted decades. Had there not been disciples, those who believed fervently in the message that Jesus brought to earth, those who believed in fact that Jesus was the Son of God, there would be no Christian movement; for the good news of the gospel would have faded quickly in Jesus’ absence.
The writer of the Gospel of John was holding true to the overall nature of his Gospel when he presented the calling of the disciples differently than other three Gospels, the Gospels that we call the Synoptics because of their similarity to each other. John fosters the link between John the Baptist and Jesus by strongly hinting that some of the disciples of Jesus may originally have been disciples of John the Baptist, crossing over to follow Jesus when John proclaimed him as the Messiah. The writer of John goes as far as to introduce us to a disciple that none of the Synoptics even mention. Scholars throughout the ages have worked very hard to “explain away” this thirteenth disciple by claiming that Nathaniel was just another name for one of the twelve disciples listed in the Synoptics – most likely Bartholomew.
Being called to be a discipleship by Christ Jesus has, over the centuries, become a specialized occurrence for few rather than a general occurrence for many. Seldom do we hear people talk about they themselves being called to be a Christian. Much more often it is about a single individual being called to some form of specialized ministry within the church, ministry that is most often marked by the act of ordination. Somehow I don’t feel that the first disciples were called to be ordained ministers of the gospel, set apart from the masses, to perform specialized rituals in the name of God Almighty as did the temple priests of Jesus’ day. No, from the beginning, from their initial calling by Jesus, I believe that the disciples were being asked to be witnesses. They were being called to observe and to report on what they observed. This was made rather evident by Jesus’ statement to that mysterious disciple Nathaniel, as he proclaimed “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” “You will see” proclaims Jesus. Nathaniel, you will witness to these things. And once a disciple has seen, then he or she will be called to testify to what they have seen.
Of course a natural jump for a pastor to make in a sermon would be to ask “How is that working out for you?” In other word, “How is that ‘called to discipleship’ thing working out for you? Have you ever considered yourself called to discipleship? Have you ever seen yourself as a witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in this day and age? Your reply might be, “Well no, I’ve never felt that Jesus Christ personally called me to anything. I’ve never considered that my membership in a congregation would mean that I am a witness to the gospel or to anything else.” You might even attempt to find protection in fact that you don’t feel Jesus has personally spoken to you, that God has not called to you in the night as God called to the boy Samuel. I really don’t think that excuse would stick very well though, as several of the original disciples of Jesus were not directly called by Jesus himself but, according to the Gospel of John, by friends and relatives. Nathaniel himself was called not by Jesus personally, but by Philip.
So let me ask you this then. “What would your life look like, what should your life look like if you firmly considered yourself as one called by God through Jesus Christ your Savior to witness to the mighty acts of God and to share the good news with those around you?” I ask the question rhetorically because when it comes right down to it I firmly believe that this is exactly how we should consider ourselves as self-proclaimed Christians. We are, whether we like it or not, as Christians, witnesses to the word and work of God Almighty as it is revealed to us and to the world in Christ Jesus our Savior. There are no ifs, ands or buts; no question at all about it. If we are going to call ourselves Christian, this is simply who we are supposed to be.
One of the questions on our congregational survey, offered as part of the process of securing a new pastor, was whether we need to emphasize more, whether we are generally satisfied, or whether we think that there is too much emphasis in this congregation when it came to sharing the good news of the Gospel with the unchurched. Half of those who responded felt that Zion Church did not put enough emphasis on this point. Now I’ve got to tell you friends, if you are all sitting there believing that a new pastor here at Zion is going to take that task upon himself or herself solely, I’m here to say very clearly, “It ain’t gonna happen.” This is something that has been shown to be true for ages. Poll after poll, study after study has shown that when people are asked why they began attending a particular church or why they embraced the Christian faith or even why they became more deeply active in church where they held membership, those who answered that it was solely because of church pastor or even primarily because of the church pastor generally averaged around 5%. 95% of those who responded said that they became a Christian or that they joined particular church or that they became more deeply involved in their church because a friend or family member or co-worker or neighbor encouraged them. If you think that your next pastor is going to bring in new members to this church you had better change your thinking. If you think that finding even the perfect settled pastor for Zion Church will mean that people will suddenly start flocking in the doors, you are sorely mistaken. Don’t get me wrong; calling a good pastor to lead this congregation most certainly won’t hurt. A great pastor will by all means help the church. What I am saying is that if you want a lively, growing church, a new pastor alone cannot accomplish it. You are ones who will make difference
Now after all this talk about the call to discipleship for every Christian, I don’t want to leave this sermon without a special note about ordained ministry and about those who feel called to make the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ their life’s vocation. What I need to say is that the ELCA and Lutherans in general, in fact throughout nearly all Christianity, especially here in the United States is suffering from a distinct lack of pastors. And while many denominations and even many synods here in ELCA are busy promoting formal programs that will encourage members, especially our youth and young adults, to consider Christian ministry as a vocation, it is again most often the members of the local church who seem to have the most impact in that sort of encouragement. So the TSA announcement, “If you see something, say something.” could be adapted for church. “If you see qualities of ministry in fellow member (of any age) say something!” Say something to that person. Say something to the church pastor. Say something to your Synod office. Don’t expect that every person has the ability to figure out the call to ministry on their own! Encourage them. Make sure that they receive the encouragement of others.
I came across an interesting excerpt from a letter written by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the subject of his own call to ministry, and since this is the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, I would like to share it with you. I quote: “My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry. At first I planned to be a physician; then I turned my attention in the direction of law. But as I passed through the preparation stages of these two professions, I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry.”
May we all hear our own personal call to witness. May we all become welcoming encouragers to those around us. May we have the sight to encourage especially those who show the signs of ministry as a vocation.